Sex Question Friday: Is It Common To Not Know Your Sexual Orientation?

A reader submitted the following question:

“Is it normal to not know your sexual orientation?”

This is a really interesting question, so thanks for asking it! I’m going to assume that by “sexual orientation” you’re referring to one’s sexual identity label. Of course, this is not how everyone defines sexual orientation (e.g., some think of it as a pattern of attraction or arousal, others as a pattern of behavior); however, I have found that in everyday (i.e., non-academic) usage, most people are referring to the label we use to describe ourselves, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.

What I can tell you is that there are definitely some people out there who are unsure of how to label their sexual orientation or who feel that the three most commonly used sexuality labels (straight, gay/lesbian, and bisexual) do not adequately describe them. The numbers vary a bit across studies, but if we look at one of the most recent nationally representative sex surveys in the United States (the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, or NSSHB), we see that 2.3% of women and 1.0% of men reported something other than straight/gay/bisexual as their sexual identity. Some of these folks were questioning their identity, whereas others subscribed to alternative sexuality labels (e.g., queer, pansexual, etc.).

Several studies (including the NSSHB) have found that more women seem to fall into this “something else” category than men, which some have taken as evidence of women’s greater sexual fluidity. Sexual fluidity refers to a capacity for a “flexible” erotic response that allows for change over time in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity. There is thought to be a lot of individual variability in sexual fluidity (i.e., some people are much more fluid than others), but that, in general, women tend to have more fluidity than men. However, recent research suggests that men may have more fluidity than they’ve been given credit for and that there might not be as large of a sex difference in this area as previously assumed.

Higher levels of sexual fluidity may lead individuals to change their sexual identity label over time, or to identify themselves as “unlabeled.” For instance, in a 10-year longitudinal study of 79 sexual minority women, it was found that approximately two-thirds of them changed their sexual identity label at least once over the course of the study, and about one-third changed labels multiple times [1]. The vast majority of the changes that occurred involved adopting either a bisexual or unlabeled identity.

To sum it up, people have a tendency to think about sexual identity labels as representing a small set of neatly defined categories; however, it turns out that some of us do not fit into these boxes very well owing to sexual fluidity and other factors. The end result is that some people may feel as though they don’t know what their sexual orientation is, whereas others may create new labels that they believe are less limiting and are more reflective of their sexualities.

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here

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[1] Diamond, L. M. (2008). Female bisexuality from adolescence to adulthood: results from a 10-year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology44(1), 5-14.

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